Pictured clutching a red suitcase and standing in front of a Rothko, France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, appears on the front page of Libération accompanied by the words "Get lost, rich idiot."
The phrase is a slightly altered version of an insult fired at a farm worker by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 and Libération’s decision to appropriate it has been condemned as being beneath such a prestigious newspaper.
Voted France’s best daily newspaper of 2012, left-leaning Libération ran the headline in response to Arnault’s announcement that he is seeking Belgian citizenship. The paper alleges that Arnault’s decision is prompted by François Hollande’s new fiscal policies, which will see a 75 percent tax band introduced for all those who earn more than €1 million.
In a country unaccustomed to tabloids screaming "Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster," and where the national press normally respects the privacy and dignity of high-profile figures, the headline has caused widespread outrage and polarised national opinion. Within hours of the headline’s appearance, Twitter was awash with users eager to share their thoughts, the majority of which appeared to be critical of the paper’s editorial decision. Left of centre publication Le Nouvel Observatuer played it safe by publishing online pieces arguing for and against the headline. While one accuses Libération of “trolling” and using “lamentable” tabloid techniques, the other argues that the headline was “necessary” as it went straight to the heart of an economic debate that is currently at the forefront of French politics.
In an article on the furore caused by its coverage of Arnault’s request for Belgian citizenship, Libération revealed that the controversial front page had provoked a mixed reaction even amongst its own editorial team. Journalist Nathalie Levisalles would have preferred the newspaper to have adopted a more ironic tone, rather than resorting to insults. Political correspondent Alain Auffray is quoted as wondering if the editorial team “could have said the same thing in a way that would have been more intellectually stimulating for our readers.” It’s certainly true that a more subtle approach may have spared Libération from the present media storm. L’Humanité, a daily news title with close ties to France’s Communist party, ran a similar story about Arnault’s alleged attempt to become a tax exile – and even used a quote from Sarkozy as its headline – all the while avoiding the kind of backlash Libération is facing.
Meanwhile Arnault, head of luxury brand LVMH and ranked as the world’s fourth richest man by Forbes, with an estimated worth of $41 bn, is to begin legal proceedings against Libération for libel. A statement released by Arnault’s lawyers reads: “"Bernard Arnault has no other choice, given the extreme vulgarity and the violence of the headline ... but to sue Liberation (for libel)." For its part, Libération denies that the front page is vulgar and insists that it made use of the former president’s phrase to draw parallels between Arnault and Nicolas Sarkozy’s relationship with France’s elite.
A lack of contrition on the editorial team’s part is made clear by Tuesday’s front page, which seems to indicate that the newspaper will not be cowed by Arnault’s libel action. The headline “Bernard, sit u reviens on annule tout” loosely translated as “Bernard, come home and we’ll take it all back” – based on a text message Sarkozy apparently sent to his estranged ex-wife. Libération’s jocular ripostes to what could be an extremely costly law suit may go some way to winning back the affection it may have lost through to what many see as its undignified treatment of a serious subject.
Still, as Libération’s chief investor Edouard de Rothschilde has commented, the public reaction to Monday’s front page has been a “great marketing exercise.” Thanks to the present scandal and the ensuing fallout, the newspaper has been trending on Twitter and seen its profile soar as it becomes part of the very news it was supposed to be reporting. It’s easy to deride the tabloids and their sensationalist tactics, but there can be no denying that they know how to attract public attention.
Although Arnault, who has been widely criticised by the French political establishment may not share the sentiment, it would seem that for Libération any publicity is good publicity.